Thursday, September 25, 2014

'Battle Beyond the Stars'

"Battle Beyond the Stars" is the best "Star Wars" ripoff ever. The film possesses a unique and colorful charm leading to its enduring status as a cult film; sort of a low budget (very low budget) "Guardians of the Galaxy" of its day.

Of all the “Star Wars” inspired ripoffs, “Battle Beyond the Stars” (1980) has a unique place in film history. The Roger Corman produced space opera opened (mostly at drive-ins) on September 8, 1980. The only mainstream publicity the movie received was on “Siskel & Ebert at the Movies” where it earned their infamous dog of the week. Actually, that is a complement when one considers some of the other films Siskel and Ebert gave that award to, including David Croneberg’s prophetic masterpiece “Videodrome” (1983).

Several factors make “Battle Beyond the Stars” unique among the post “Star Wars” late 1970s sci-fi shlock. First is the “Seven Samurai” inspired script by acclaimed independent filmmaker John Sayles (“Lone Star”, “Eight Men Out”). Sayles was a master of low budget genre writing at the time. He also scripted two of Joe Dante’s early classics, the “Jaws” (1975) ripoff “Piranha” (1978), and arguably the greatest werewolf movie ever made, “The Howling” (1981).

Second is the bizarre and colorful cast full of Hollywood legends and cult actors including John SaxonSybil Danning, Richard Vaughn, Darlanne Fluegel, and George Peppard. Casting Richard Thomas, John Boy Walton himself, as the young swashbuckling hero who must lead this band of adventures into battle is easily the greatest casting coup in the history of low budget cinema. This movie knows how to have fun.

Third, there is the special effects and art direction, specifically the design of the spaceships. The ships have a very similar look to the vehicles in “The Terminator” (1984), “Aliens” (1986), and “Avatar” (2009). That is because they were created by none other than James Cameron who was hired as the movie’s model maker and ended up taking over the art direction and production design.

Fourth, and most significantly, what gives “Battle Beyond the Stars” its special allure is the rousing musical score composed by a 26 year-old James Horner. Like the rest of the movie, the music was made on a low budget. But even though the score was created in less than ideal conditions with an undersized orchestra of 62 players, the soundtrack has an astonishingly big sound.

The heroic main theme from “Battle Beyond the Stars” is a stirring march. It is a triumphant, pound your fists in air kind of theme wrapped up in a crescendo of soaring nautical flavored adventure music. The score is often referred to as “Star Trek II: The Warm-up” and indeed much of material that Horner would use for his 1982 classic “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn” gets a trial run here.

“Battle Beyond the Stars” has a wonderful, fully developed, irresistible love theme, one of Horner’s best. There is also some exciting action music that would serve as the template for later, far more polished scores such as the aforementioned “Star Trek II” (1982), “Krull”(1983), and “Aliens” (1986).

The music from “Battle Beyond the Stars” remains as popular as ever among soundtrack collectors and Horner fans and has been released twice on CD. First in 2001 by GNP Crescendo. Then in 2011 a new, expanded album was released by BSX records.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

'Land of the Lost', soundtrack review

Franchise starved Universal Pictures blew a tremendous opportunity in 2009 with “Land of the Lost”. Inter-dimensional travel, temporal mechanics, lost cities, menacing humanoid lizard creatures, and rampaging dinosaurs were some of the mainstays of the Sid and Marty Kroft produced NBC Saturday morning live action series “Land of the Lost”, which ran from 1974-1976. It may have been a children’s show, but this was a serious adventure series. Despite the low budget there was a creepy other-worldly sense of mystery and wonder to the show. Many of the scripts were written by the best science fiction writers of the day including Theodore Sturgeon, Larry Niven, Ben Bova, Norman Spinrad, Dorothy Fontana and series co-creator and story editor David Gerrold.

This was a show ripe for an intelligent update ala J.J. Abrams. But instead the producers decided to turn it into a Will Ferrell comedy—and a wretched, offensively unfunny one at that. Note to the producers at Universal: The best way to launch a franchise is not to insult the fan base by mocking them.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that these same tone deaf producers hired Michael Giacchino to write the score for the “Land of the Lost” movie. Giacchino is of course the composer of “Lost”—a serious (and wildly successful) approach to the same themes as “Land of the Lost”.

Thankfully, Giacchino does take the material seriously, creating an exciting score in the Jerry Goldsmith tradition by scoring the film that should have been made, as opposed to the awful one that was.

The “Land of the Lost” soundtrack album is jam-packed with 32 tracks of orchestral blast—an exciting and colorful array of “Lost” style adventure music.

Among the highlights are “Swamp and Circumstance”, a creepy suspense motif, “The Lighter Side of Archaeology”, actually a scary “Lost” style danger motif, and “A Routine Expedition” which introduces the main theme, an irresistible  “The Incredibles” style James Bond  rift complete with a banjo and electric guitars.

“Never Trust a Dude in a Tunic” begins with big, lush, romantic golden age style string swell before morphing into an escalating danger cue with a wonderful sense of mystery. Then, the track transitions again finishing off with a gorgeous “Lost” style sentimental motif that is developed throughout the score as the soundtrack’s emotional theme. As has been said in these pages many times, no current composer brings more accessible emotion to the table than Michael Giacchino. His ability to create deeply affecting music, (even within the context of a putrid project such as this one), is astounding.

Giacchino also writes some of the best action music in film and television today, and “Land of the Lost” is no exception. This is more than anything, an action score, and one that is brimming with exciting, propulsive, adrenaline inciting cues.  The absurdly entitled “When Piss on Your Head is a Bad Idea” is a rousing piece of music, as exciting as anything you will hear on any soundtrack today. “Undercover Sleestak” is a pulse-pounding statement of the main theme and primary action motif.

Bottom Line: “Land of the Lost” is a colorful, entertaining soundtrack full of exciting adventure music and further evidence Giacchino is the closest thing to the modern version of a Williams/Goldsmith/Horner.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

'Island in the Sky'

Aside from two outstanding scores—Michael Giacchino’s moving epic music for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and Alexandre Desplat’s bombastic fury for “Godzilla”, it has been a dismal year for fans of memorable film music. The year’s biggest blockbuster, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, sent moviegoers scurrying to their smart phones as the credits rolled to buy the catchy (and brilliantly utilized) collection of joyful ‘70s pop classics—as opposed to the original score actually playing on the credits—a functional but tepid assembly of weak, undeveloped musical meanderings barely heard during the movie.

It is hard to believe that nearly fifty years ago music was being written for the debut of a CBS television series called “Lost in Space” with a level of astute musical craftsmanship and complexity far beyond anything likely to be seen at a multiplex—or anywhere else—in 2014.

John William’s music for the Irwin Allen television trio of the 1960s (“Lost in Space”, “Land of the Giants”, and “Time Tunnel”) is a stunning body of innovative work that helped lay the groundwork for his legendary career scoring many of the greatest blockbusters and acclaimed dramas of all time. In many ways, Williams used utilized these shows as an experimental canvas in the same way Michael Giacchino used “Lost” to create musical ideas he would come back to and develop further in films such as “Super 8”, “John Carter”, and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”.

Of the three Allen shows, it is “Lost in Space” where Williams spent the most time honing his magical artistry, and there is perhaps no better example than in “Island of the Sky”, the third episode in the show’s glorious black and white first season.

“Lost in Space” is now famous for its campy style featuring the buffoonery of Dr. Smith. But during the first season—especially the early episodes—this was a serious, dramatic, (and wonderfully melodramatic) adventure show, and John Williams (under the guise of “Johnny Williams”) scored it as such.

The score to “Island in the Sky” can be found in its entirety in the 40th anniversary soundtrack by La-La Land and in a less than complete form on Volume One of the old GNP Cresendo set.

“Island in the Sky” opens with “Strange Planet/John’s Descent”, a powerhouse suspense cue that builds with a pulsating wave of brass, flourishing with both vertical and horizontal movements beyond the grasp of most composers working today. Immediately there is a sense of danger and mystery. The amount of musical depth packed into this short cue is amazing. Many moments feel like they could be out of the darker shadings of a “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones” movie.

“Helmet It” is downright scary. Among the many treasures to indulge in here are some of William’s best horror music moments foreshadowing later work in “The Fury” and “Dracula”.
“Strangle Hold/Landing” is the showcase piece of the score; an absolute knockout action cue bursting with layered motifs, propulsive brass, escalating rhythms, and a relentless sense of excitement. This 6:27 cue is a precursor of many set pieces featured in future William’s blockbusters. This complex, intricately action music that is always accessible and goes somewhere with a sense of purpose.

“Lil’ Will and The Robot” continue the suspense and dramatic tension with escalating swings of brass in what became the trademark music of this series, and reservoir of motif gesturing used in later works by Williams, especially “Jurassic Park” and “The Lost World”.

“Search for John” is a full-fledged, beautifully crafted dramatic suspense cue with a building sense of mystery and danger. The excitement and shimmering wonder continue as the score soars to its finale in “Monkey’s Doo”, “Operation Rescue”’ and “Personal Chauffeur/Electric Sagebrush/Will Is Threatened”. Every moment in this score has something musically rich for the ear to hang on to. As with his future works. Williams always develops his ideas and knows where he wants to go with them.

Bottom line: “Island in the Sky” is an exciting, propulsive, colorful, avant-garde musical masterwork and a wonderful chance to explore the musical formations of John William’s blockbuster style of scoring.

My top ten everything

There is something irresistible, something addictive about top ten lists. I am incapable of passing one by if a link pops up on a page I am browsing. I love reading them—and writing them. As always these are favorites, highly subjective, and intensely personal in a “hey dude you need to get a life” kind of a way.

TV shows (all genres and formats)

24 – FOX (2001-2010, 2014)
The X-Files – FOX (1993-2002)
Unsolved Mysteries – NBC (1987-1997)
Mad Men – AMC (2008-2015)
Star Trek – NBC (1966-1969)
Homeland – Showtime (2011-present)
The Simpsons – FOX (1989-present)
The Walking Dead – AMC (2010-present)
Fringe – FOX (2008-2013)
Bewitched – ABC (1964-1972)


Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Videodrome (1983)
Falling Down (1993)
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
JFK (1991)
Empire of the Sun (1987)
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Wall Street (1987)
The Bear (1989)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Books (fiction)

Brak the Barbarian (John Jakes)
Logan’s Run (William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson)
The World Inside (Robert Silverberg)
The Bastard (John Jakes)
Conan the Adventurer (Robert. E. Howard)
Batman comics (Dennis O’Neil, Neal Adams circa 1970)
Crash (J.G. Ballard)
Contact (Carl Sagan)
Brainwave (Poul Anderson)
Firefly Lane (Kristin Hannah)


So Close - Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz performed by Jon McLaughlin (2007)
Gods and Monsters – Lana Del Rey (2013)
Viva La Vida - Coldplay (2008)
Live and Let Die – Paul McCartney and Wings (1973)
Push it – Garbage (1998)
California Dreaming – The Mamas & the Papas (1965)
Kokomo – The Beach Boys (1988)
American – Lana Del Rey (2013)
Make That Move – Shalimar (1981)
I See You (Theme from Avatar) – James Horner and Kuk Harrell performed by Leona Lewis (2009)


Amy Adams
Eva Green
Viola Davis
Mia Kirshner
Julianne Moore
Kate Beckinsale
Dakota Fanning
Naomi Watts
Zoe Saldana
Brit Marling


Denzel Washington
Michael Douglas
Al Pacino
Tom Hanks
Christian Bale
Samuel L. Jackson
Gene Hackman
Morgan Freeman
Jeff Bridges
Vin Diesel

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